No Plot? No Problem! by Chris Baty: A Review

Next month, July 2018, I will be participating in Camp NaNoWriMo – a relaxed version of November’s National Novel Writing Month. In honor of this event (that begins tomorrow!), I decided I should reread Chris Baty’s No Plot? No Problem! and share my review with you.

I love Baty’s irreverent tone. He creates an atmosphere with his writing style that makes you want to believe anything is possible. Even something as crazy as writing 50,000 words in 30 days. But then, he turns around and gives you solid advice on how to make the impossible happen.

As a long time participant and winner of National Novel Writing Month, I’m already a believer, so this book didn’t have to work hard to convince me. Still, it’s a great book for anyone who’s ever considered trying to write a novel. Baty gives a no-nonsense, practical guide on fiction writing, but it’s a lot more than that. This book is more about completing a novel in a month’s time.

Part one of the book focuses on preparing for the month of writing. He gives a variety of tips and tricks learned from experience – things such as recruiting family and friends as accountability partners and stocking up on caffeinated drinks and sweet treats (or whatever else inspires you).

Part two gives a week by week overview of what the month of writing will likely look like. This book will prepare the participant for everything from the fanatical enthusiasm of week one to the pit of despair that is week two.

Baty’s approach is full of good humor that borders on sassy. His emphasis is on creating for yourself an atmosphere of freedom to finally write the story that’s inside you. He talks about “exuberant imperfections” and allowing yourself freedom to write a first draft that isn’t perfect, but it’s whole.

I realize National Novel Writing Month isn’t for everyone. Not everyone writes like this. But for me, it works. The pressure of the looming deadline and the enthusiasm of writing madly with thousands of other writers just works for me. If you’ve ever thought about giving National Novel Writing Month a try, this book is a great field guide stuffed full with practical advice and real-life tips from other writers who have been there and come out the other side.

For the beginning writer just starting out on this adventure, Baty’s book is as good as any as an introduction to fiction writing. Also, for the writer who has been curious about NaNoWriMo, but hasn’t yet convinced himself to try it, this book could be an excellent motivator.

Bridge to Terabithia, by Katherine Paterson: A Review

I chose to read Bridge to Terabithia, by Katherine Paterson for 2018 Reading Challenge prompt #36, a book set in the decade I was born. Originally published in 1977, this book evokes memories from my own childhood. A time that predates cell phones and video games, and children were set loose to roam freely around their neighborhoods. At the same time, it doesn’t ever really feel outdated.

This story follows fifth-grader Jess Aarons, the only boy in the middle of a family with five children. He has a keen imagination and loves to draw, but is pushed by his father to seek more practical pursuits. He has few friends at school, but has ambitions to be the fastest boy in the fifth grade once school resumes. These ambitions are thwarted by a new kid in class – a girl, no less.

And so begins a remarkable, if unlikely, friendship. The new girl and her parents have moved into the house next door to Jess’s family. They embark on an incredible adventure of imagination. Along the way their friendship is tested by school yard bullies, a clingy younger sister and a schoolboy crush on a kind teacher.

Bridge to Terabithia was the Newberry Medal winner for 1978, and it’s well deserved in my opinion. Patterson has written a beautiful, emotional story that doesn’t disappoint. I had seen the movie prior to reading this book, and even knowing the outcome of the story, I still had the same response.

If you haven’t read this one, it is well worth the read. If you read it with children, though, be prepared for some conversation.

Unlock the Muse – June 27, 2018

It’s the end of June. 2018 is half over already. How is that possible? Nonetheless, it is true. And it also means it is time once again for Camp NaNoWriMo, July edition. For this session, I’ve decided to return to a sci-fi/fantasy hybrid novel that I started some time ago. Lately it has been clamoring for my attention

Here is your writing prompt for this week:

Setting the stage: Is the time and place of your latest story clear? Go through your work, and extract words or phrases that depict the surroundings. Have you clearly set the place and time?

This week I began reading the chapter on dialogue in The 3 A.M. Epiphany, by Brian Kiteley. A real life conversation is messy, but a fictional one can’t afford to be. It’s important to make every word count in your fictional conversations – those said as well as unsaid. In fact, what goes unsaid is often even more important. Here’s an exercise to help you focus on body language:

Write a “conversation” in which no words are said. It might be best to have a stranger observe this conversation, rather than showing us the thoughts of one of the people involved in the conversation, because the temptation to tell us what the conversation is about is so great from inside of the conversation. 600 words.



Happy writing!

Please consider sharing your response to the writing exercise. Got a question? Just ask!

The Wrath and the Dawn, by Renee Ahdieh: A Review

For a book with a time of day in the title, I chose to read The Wrath and the Dawn, by Renee Ahdieh. This is prompt #8 on the 2018 Reading Challenge list and one of 31 challenge books I’ve already finished.

This young adult romantic fantasy is inspired by A Thousand and One Nights. I don’t know that collection as well as I’d like to, but I think most of us are familiar with at least parts of it – particularly the story of Aladdin.

In this story, the young caliph marries a new bride each night only to have her killed at dawn. Shahrzad vows to avenge the death of her best friend who was taken by the caliph. She volunteers to be his next bride and initiates her plan of revenge. If she can stay alive long enough to carry it out.

Despite the obstacles placed in their way, the romance in this story feels genuine. Shahrzad’s own personal conflicts only add to and deepen the suspense of the overall story. I was drawn in immediately to this story by the beautiful setting and well written characters. I didn’t want to put the book down. I was intrigued by the story and needed to know how it would come out in the end.

I would definitely recommend this book to anyone who loves a good romance and a good adventure. It is well done on both counts. As soon as I finished reading I made arrangements to acquire the sequel.

Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, by Judy Blume: A Review

I chose to read Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret, by Judy Blume for the 2018 Reading Challenge prompt a childhood classic I’ve never read. I really should have read this book when I was a preteen rather than a forty-something adult. It would have had a much different impact on me back then.

Still, this is a beautifully written rite-of-passage story about a sixth grade girl, Margaret. Though I didn’t read this book when I should have, I can still see the impact it had on the culture I grew up in. It is funny and deeply moving.

There is an understated discussion about religion through the course of this book. Margaret, the main character, has been raised in a non-religous home by parents of different religious backgrounds. I love how Blume shows a girl trying to find answers to the question of religion and faith. She hasn’t been given any of the answers, and seeks them out on her own. In the end, I think she finds what she’s looking for despite the division within her own family.

I really enjoyed how Blume demonstrated this struggle to find the meaning of faith and religion by placing that journey within the often uncomfortable family relationships we all deal with. She tackles a serious subject from a humorous standpoint, and in the end shows what love and acceptance really look like.

While some of the details are outdated (it was published in 1970), the struggles of a pre-teen girl to find her place in the world are timeless. This is a great book.

Haunted Castle on Hallow’s Eve, by Mary Pope Osborn: A Review

Prompt #29 on the 2018 Reading Challenge list is a book about or set on Halloween. I had a hard time finding a book I wanted to read for this, especially considering my self-imposed requirement of women authors. I eventually remembered there was a book in the Magic Tree House series by Mary Pope Osborn set on Halloween. My son has become a fan of these books, and we’ve collected nearly the entire set. So I borrowed Haunted Castle on Hallow’s Eve from my son’s bookshelf.

This series of stories takes Jack and his younger sister, Annie, on a variety of exciting adventures around the world and throughout time. They travel via a magic tree house that comes to rest in the tallest oak in the small wood near their home in Frog Creek, Pennsylvania.

Typically, the pair are sent out on missions by the witch Morgan le Fay. This book, however, is one of the “Merlin Missions” and the two kids are sent out by the magician Merlin, one of only a few books in this series to take place in an imaginary world. Their assigned task is to restore order to a haunted castle in Camelot.

Jack is his usual hesitant but resourceful self, while Annie, true to form, is quick to run to adventure and trouble. The kids find plenty of both in this story. They also learn what it means to be brave. As well as compassionate.

The Magic Tree House series is great for young, emerging readers. I’ve enjoyed reading these books with my boys. They introduce elements of fantasy and time travel as well as historical and cultural facts from around the world.

I enjoyed this book, though it felt strange reading it for myself and not out loud with my boys. This series is recommended for readers ages 6-9 who are just beginning to read chapter books. They are fun to read and well researched. I definitely recommend this series for new readers looking for adventure around the world.

Unlock the Muse – June 20, 2018

We’re nearing the end of June. Summer officially begins tomorrow. I don’t know what it’s like where you are, but where I live, temperatures are growing uncomfortably warm. But I am from Oregon, and what is uncomfortable to me is time-to-put-the-sweaters-away perfect for someone else.

Your writing prompt for this week is:

Characterization check: Take a central character from your latest story, and jot down attributes, physical features, mannerisms, goals, fears, secrets and any other relevant characteristics. Take this list and compare it to your story, do you spot any places where he or she is acting “out of character”?

Fiction comes from a variety of sources – history, observation, experience, pure imagination. From The 3 A.M. Epiphany, by Brian Kiteley:

Fiction need not be the least bit autobiographical, or it may be nearly pure autobiography. Nevertheless, the exploration of your own history can be very useful in the search for subject matter for your fiction. Even the most experimental, objective, or distanced story usually has an element of autobiography in it, something analogous to the author’s experience.

Explore your personal history. Write down your memories, experiences, observations. Keep a journal and play around with the ideas, see where they take you.

It’s vocabulary week! I haven’t been especially inspired by a specific word lately. So let’s take a look at a potentially dangerous word:



1. The action of delaying or postponing something.

It also has some fun and interesting synonyms: dithering, stalling, hesitation, vacillation, dilly-dallying, shilly-shallying.

The word procrastination is derived from the Latin verb procrastinare, combining the prefix pro- “forward” with crastinus “of tomorrow” – hence, moving something forward from one day until the next. Here is a fun article on the history of the word procrastination from

Happy writing!

Please consider sharing your response to the writing exercise. Got a question? Just ask!

Middle Grade Weekend – Blanket Forts & Summer Reading

I’m between books at the moment for my 2018 Reading Challenge, and I just picked up a bunch of books at the library I want to read. Middle grade and young adult fiction has become my favorite reading lately, so most of these books fall into this category.

It seems sort of appropriate that as I’m writing this post, I’m sitting in a darkened room just outside the walls of a blanket fort listening to two of my boys snoring away. It’s summer time, I let them stay up past their usual bedtime.

More summer adventures await us tomorrow, as I hope to get a chance to take them to the library to pick out some great books. I’ve signed them up for the summer reading activities with our local library.

In the meantime, I’m binging on middle grade and young adult fiction this weekend. Here’s my list:

Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, by Judy Blume (on my list as a childhood classic I’ve never read)
Haunted Castle on Hallow’s Eve, by Mary Pope Osborn (a book about or set on Halloween)
Bridge to Terabithia, by Katherine Paterson (a book set in the decade I was born)
I Survived: The Joplin Tornado, 2011, by Lauren Tarshis (recommended to me by my son)
The Rithmatist, by Brandon Sanderson (one of my favorites authors, and I just have to read it!)
The Raven Boys, by Maggie Stiefvater (a “staff pick” from the local library for the summer reading challenge)

I may also get in a few pages of one or more of these chapter books I’m reading aloud with my boys:

The Bad Beginning, by Lemony Snicket
The Silver Chair, by C. S. Lewis
Serafina and the Black Cloak, by Robert Beatty

What are you reading? Do you have any favorite middle grade or young adult books to recommend?

Unlock the Muse – June 13, 2018

School is officially out for the summer. It’s time to be outdoors as much as possible, watch the butterflies flitter about and listen to the bees buzz about the clover. Whether you’re vacationing at home, or out traveling about, don’t forget to take your notebook along!

Here’s the writing prompt for this week:

Write about your journey to the end of the rainbow. What did you find when you got there? Were you happy, sad, disappointed, frightened?

Is there really a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow? Is it nothing but fool’s gold? What does your journey look like?

I’m still reading through The 3 A.M. Epiphany, by Brian Kiteley. Here’s an exercise from the chapter titled “History.”

The Day After. Imagine a moment just after some major historical event. Use ordinary people, not the Napoleans or Nancy Reagans. This will demand some research. Don’t be afraid. It may be that these people have no idea what has just happened. The barkeep in a tavern in Philadelphia in 1777 has no idea the Articles of Confederation have just been ratified down the street. He serves the signers with warm beer and a huge suppawn with milk (a whole stewed pumpkin). 800 words.

Let’s take a look this week at the comma. Here is rule #3 of Strunk and White’s Elementary Rules of Usage:

Enclose parenthetic expressions between commas. This rule is difficult to apply; it is frequently hard to decide whether a single word, such as however, or a brief phrase is or is not parenthetic. If the interruption to the flow of the sentence is but slight, the commas may be safely omitted. But whether the interruption is slight or considerable, never omit one comma and leave the other.

Happy writing!

Please consider sharing your response to the writing exercise. Got a question? Just ask! Next week is word of the month! Got a word with an interesting story you’d like to see profiled?

The Mortal Instruments Series, by Cassandra Clare: A Review

I started reading the Mortal Instruments series by Cassandra Clare as part of last year’s reading challenge. It was one of 26 series I started or continued as part of my Year of the Series. I read the first two books, but didn’t manage to read the whole series last year. For my 2018 Reading Challenge, I managed to work in the final four books of this series as the next book in a series I started (City of Glass), a book I borrowed (City of Lost Souls), a past Goodreads Choice Awards winner (City of Fallen Angels) and a book being read by a stranger in a public place (City of Heavenly Fire).

These six books are lumped together into a single series titled The Mortal Instruments. I think they could have easily been broken into two separate, but related, trilogies. The first three books have one story line and one enemy, all tied together by a hunt for the three objects known as the Mortal Instruments. The final three books follow a different story line with a different enemy, and the title objects have little relevance.

I like how the later books reveal more of the other characters, especially Simon, Alec and Maia, rather than focusing on the two main players, Clary and Jace. This is a fun young adult adventure/romance series filled with angels and demons, vampires, werewolves and more. There are magical runes and magical swords. Overall, it moves quickly and despite their large size, doesn’t take too long to read. But it isn’t perfect.

The biggest issue I have with these stories is all the romantic and sexual drama – the on-again, off-again, will they or won’t they drama. The characters in these books are sixteen and seventeen years old. Don’t get me wrong, I like a good romantic story. And I’m not so naive to think that kids this age aren’t engaging in sexual behavior. But it felt excessive. To the point that I wanted to skip over all those parts. I could have skipped a lot of pages.

Clare also blithely makes use of a social double standard that has existed for far too long. The double standard that says it is not only acceptable, but expected that a sixteen year old boy has had sex, but his sixteen year old girlfriend has not. This feels annoyingly sexist to me.

Still, if you’re looking for a good fun urban fantasy, this series won’t disappoint. Will I read more by Clare? Probably.